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Mansion closes when guides quit

The historic Asa Packer Mansion in Jim Thorpe is set to usher in a new era without the veteran guides who have shared its stories for the last several decades.

On the day after the town’s borough council agreed to leave control of the mansion with the Jim Thorpe Lions Club pending an evaluation at the end of the year, curator Ava Bretzik and many of the home’s longtime guides submitted their resignations, saying they felt disrespected and concerned for their jobs moving forward.

The borough has owned the home since it was willed to them by Asa’s daughter, Mary Packer Cummings, in 1912, and the Lions Club has served as caretaker since an agreement was penned in 1954.

“When the borough decided not to have a parks director anymore and put a director in through the Lions Club, it started getting disrespectful,” Bretzik said. “That was around 2000. Our opinions really didn’t seem to hold any value. It was OK to a certain point because we loved the house so much. We put on blinders, but we felt we were left little choice at this point. Our hearts are broken.”

Jay McElmoyle, chairman of the mansion for the Lions Club, said the resignations took the organization by surprise.

“We’ve sent those guides letters asking them to come back and give us a chance,” he said. “They have a wealth of knowledge and we would love to them back here giving tours again. We talked a year ago about raises for all of the guides and we ended up voting on a good raise. We felt they deserved even more, but our bottom line kind of dictates what we can could do there.”

Bretzik started helping at the mansion in 1976 when her father was a Lions Club president. Among the longtime guides joining her in resigning Friday were Ann Boretski, Kathy Long, Theresa Edmondson, Carolyn Izzo, Alex Izzo, Shirley Ely, Elizabeth Hannon, and James LeVan. All have been at the mansion for more than two decades and together their experience totals over 200 years.

“It’s tough,” LeVan said. “It feels like we are grieving a death in the family, but I wanted to make a decision on my own when I wasn’t going to work there anymore. We went out with heads held high. We have no regrets.”

Closed to the public

While the mansion has been closed to the public since last week’s borough decision, two tour guides, one who had worked at the mansion for three years and another one brand-new, hosted around 65 Towamensing Elementary students and staff who were on a field trip.

“Those kids were super excited to be coming to the mansion and we just felt that even with the personnel issues going on, the right thing was to give them that tour,” McElmoyle said.

One of those guides was Leah Figura, a Jim Thorpe High School senior.

“This past week she took Lions Club members and prospective guides through the house,” McElmoyle said. “No high school student should be put in the spot she has been, but she has been amazing.”

McElmoyle said the Lions Club hopes to have the mansion open Saturday-Monday of Memorial Day weekend.

“We’re definitely going to be open Sunday, but we’d like to be there all three days,” he said.

The organization has seen some turnover within the past several years and many of its newer members shared a desire to maintain caretaking responsibilities at the mansion.

Borough President Greg Strubinger said he felt ongoing maintenance and personnel issues at the mansion should yield a different management situation moving forward.

He recommended forming a new501c3 organization and board of directors to oversee the mansion. It would have been comprised of three borough council members, a mansion director and three at-large members. When the matter came to a council vote last week, however, Strubinger was the only member to back the new organization.

What’s next

The three-story, 18-room, 11,000-square-foot Italianate Villa style mansion needs work, Bretzik said. She was heavily involved in the process of acquiring two recent state grants, worth $442,255, to support renovations to the mansion, most notably a partial roof replacement to eliminate leaks and water damage.

Long said Monday part of the former guides’ frustration stemmed from maintenance issues being left to get worse over the years.

“We really love that house and it’s hard to give a tour when the third floor is closed because we’re having problems with the roof and it’s not being handled,” she said. “And you have to tell people that year after year.”

Smaller items, Bretzik said, were handled by her or family members of guides over the years.

“When I started, some Lions Club members were contractors and they would come in and do stuff,” she said. “That doesn’t happen anymore, so my husband came in and, for example, installed a railing on the back staircase. He did a lot of stuff without getting a dollar or a thank you.”

Long said giving visitors the best tour possible was always most important for the guides.

“It takes years to gather the knowledge and be able to present it,” Long said. “You can’t just have cut and dry history because people will get bored. Knowing your audience is a large part of the job. Our greatest compliment is when someone tells you, “I can really tell you love your job.”

Though she and the guides resigned, Bretzik said she felt there was no other choice.

“It will take us a long time to get over this because we feel we were pushed out like we did something wrong,” she said. “The only thing we did was try to preserve it and nobody wanted to hear our view. I think we can honestly say if this is it, we left it better than we found it.”

As the mansion’s restructuring moves forward, McElmoyle said he’s hopeful some of the employees who stepped away will reconsider.

“We all want what’s best for the longevity of the mansion,” he said. “This is the gem of Jim Thorpe. Hopefully we can do good for it.”

The Asa Packer Mansion is temporarily closed to the public following a large number of guide resignations. The resignations came in the wake of borough council's decision to leave oversight of the mansion with the Jim Thorpe Lions Club. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO